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Nicola Harris, Co-Founder of Ubuntu

Nicola Harris is the co-executive director of the Afro Caribbean Business Network (ACBN), a community organizer, and the co-founder of The Centre for Strategic Impact. The ACBN developed a virtual reality (VR) app, in partnership with Cognicorp+ Therapy Inc., called Ubuntu. Ubuntu means “humanity towards others” or “I am because we are,” and the app is designed to help build mental health and community connectedness. By using a computer or a VR headset paired with a mobile device, the app creates a life-like environment that allows for community engagement or one-to-one meditation and counselling.

For Harris, the inspiration for Ubuntu came when she met Emmanuella Michel, the founder of Cognicorp+, at a pre-COVID conference in Montreal. There, they interacted on the notion of how mental health support can be offered through various mediums, and how technology can be embraced to provide support, especially to Black people and other historically disadvantaged people of colour. This was highly pertinent given that the pandemic had taken a toll on people’s collective mental health. 

The Edge spoke with Harris on how Ubuntu aims to create a world of difference to those dealing with mental health problems.

In general, how do the app itself and the metaverse work?

The app is called Ubuntu, and the whole purpose and aim of the app is to promote interconnectedness. An important part of the app is the mental health piece, so we have a few different environments that speak directly to that. We have an environment that is essentially an underwater yoga studio. We also have a beach environment, and you can do some self-reflection and meditation in the water. We also have external environments where people can walk around, like an African lion safari. When you go into the app, you can choose which environment you’d like to start with, and you can teleport to different environments. 

For a community event, we have an agenda, and you would be able to move through the environment to complete the agenda on your own. Lastly, if it’s mental health counseling, and I’m going to be doing a service with my counselor, my counselor would tell me in advance which environment I would need to go in, and then I would choose that environment.

How does the Ubuntu app fit in with the ACBN’s overall mission?

As many companies and organizations have had to turn their minds to their workforce — and for us, our membership — with COVID-19, we had a huge amount of our members reaching out to us and talking about their mental health challenges. Up until that point, that wasn’t really part of what we were doing; we do education, we do networking, we do workshops. But we came to a realization that if we’re trying to meet the needs of our members, we have to shift our minds to what our members are asking us for. 

One of the big aspects is the cultural piece. There’s lots of different mental health supports out there, but there’s not as many options for mental health services that are culturally responsive. The most critical piece for our members is that they’re entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs work 24/7; they don’t have time to go to a mental health counselor, right? So, just thinking outside the box and using and leveraging technology to be able to meet the needs of our members.

Why is building mental health and community connectedness an important part of Ubuntu’s goal?

Part of ACBN’s mission is building that network. Ryan Knight talks a lot about this ecosystem. Ubuntu becomes a critical component of this ecosystem that we’re trying to enhance and promote within the Black community. I’m a social worker, so I use support system or support network, but we’re talking about the same thing: how do we blanket people so that they have the support that they need, and it be accessible? I think that Ubuntu is a critical part of an ecosystem because there’s so many purposes for this app, we just see the app itself as a jumping off point for us to go really, really big. 

We’re doing a lot of work with youth, and we know that young people interact differently, so how do we contribute to the learning of tomorrow? We can connect with that intergenerational learning that needs to happen and can happen more easily using this app and this platform.

What role do you see VR playing in the future when it comes to how we connect and communicate?

I just think about Facebook. We’ve just seen a huge player right within technology space make a huge change and a huge decision to change the company’s name to Meta. And Facebook has been dominant for years. I think that move was a signal that this is where we’re going. We’ve just had this disruption with COVID-19, and I think we’re all Zoomed out, so what’s next? For me, what’s next is the Metaverse, and how it’ll become more integrated into our everyday lives. 

I see it creeping in already, but I think Facebook let everybody know, “this is what’s happening.” I think that even if you try to resist, I just don’t think we’re going to be able to get away from it. Facebook has more than a billion users, so even if just those people are interacting on VR, that’s more than 10% of the global population. It’s Facebook right now, but all the other companies will get in line and be on it as well.

Marcus Medford | Contributing Writer

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